Kudos to Canadian music journalist Erica Ehm for asking grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain if his music was inspired by literature.
Indeed, it was. In a 1993 interview with Ehm, Nirvana’s singer-songwriter Cobain stated that his favorite book was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and “as a matter a fact…used that very story in ‘Scentless Apprentice.’”[audio http://dailyrefill.blogs.com/daily/files/02_scentless_apprentice.mp3]
“I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind about 10 times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain told Ehm at the time. “Cause I’m a hypochondriac (and) it just affects me–makes me want to cut off my nose.”
Suskind’s Perfume, originally written in German, was published in 1985. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the historical novel’s protagonist, is a perfume apprentice with hysperosmia, which gives a person a strong sense of smell, but ironically was born without a body scent.
Jean was abandoned at birth and raised by wet nurses. At one point a wet nurse explains that most babies “smell like fresh butter.” But because Jean was scentless it became an issue for a wet nurse. That same wet nurse even claims baby Jean is possessed by the devil because of the lack of body odor.
“I want this bastard out of my house.”
“But why, my good woman?” said Terrier, poking his finger in the basket again. “He really is an adorable child. He’s rosy pink, he doesn’t cry, and he’s been baptized.”
“He’s possessed by the devil.”
“He doesn’t smell at all,” said the wet nurse.
“And there you have it! That is a clear sign. If he were possessed by the devil, then he would have to stink.”
It’s in the first two verse of the song that Cobain hoarsely yells about babies smelling like butter and Jean being passed around from wet nurse to wet nurse.
Like most babies smell like butter
His smell smelled like no other
He was born scentless and senseless
He was born a scentless apprentice
Every wet nurse refused to feed him
The interview with Canada’s TV channel Much Music was done nine months before Cobain committed suicide. In remembrance of his birthday, which he would have been 46 today, watch the complete 23-minute clip of a tranquil Cobain.